10 Respiratory System

Title: Respiratory System

Artist/Source: Charles Bell (1774-1842)

Date: circa 1830

Medium/Technique: watercolour, graphite and iron gall ink on paper

UCL Art Museum #9283 (Presented by UCL Division of Biosciences)

UCL Art Museum holds six watercolours by Charles Bell (1774-1842), the Scottish anatomist, neurologist, surgeon and natural theologian who gave the inaugural address at the opening of University College Medical School. In 1827 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy, and worked as Surgeon to Middlesex Hospital from 1814 to 1836. The dual concerns of art and anatomy resonate throughout his life and work.

Of the nerves which associate the muscles of the chest in the action of breathing, speaking and expression,Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1822, records Bell’s interest in the implication of the nerves for respiration. The works devoted to the face reflect his interest in the area on facial paralysis, today known as Bell’s palsy. Bell first detailed many of his discoveries related to the facial nerves in The Nervous System of the Human Body. Embracing the Papers Delivered to the Royal Society on the Subject of the Nerves in 1824, once again shortly preceding these watercolours.

This watercolour of the ‘Respiratory System’ depicts the moment on inspiration, prior to the expansion of the lungs. The combination of an expressive face with a depiction of the respiratory system coincides with Bell’s belief that the nerves of expression and respiration were one and the same. The slightly agape mouth and closed eyelids capture a serene facial expression resembling that of Joy in Bell’s own physiognomy of expression, in his The Anatomy of Painting. The simplified contour of the face limits the image’s capacity to relate the position of the nerves relative to facial structures, while drawing attention to the same nerves. It is highly aestheticized, typical of Bell’s artistic style.

The inscription reads: “Respiratory System: nerves introduced in relation to the (conversion?) of the organ of inspiration into the XX XXX of voice. The respiratory organ in the lowest and XXX (distribution?) is diffused, and applied solely to oxygenating the blood, as developed in the higher X it is concentrated and is actuated? In Man for Voice and Expiration? In correspondence with his Mind. To animate the mechanism appropriated for this of X (fin?), XXXXXXXXX (appears to be a squiggly line over a description in pencil) and accommodate X (intelligence?), the organs of degustation and thus? Circulating the blood, with X (c….ick) it becomes complicated, new nerves are superseded to the “Original System” and have been called “Respiratory”” –‘A’. The signing of this inscription with ‘A’ suggests that Bell borrowed the quote from Alexander Shaw (1804-1890), his brother-in-law and collaborator on an illustrated biography of his work on nerves, to whom he also dedicates this set of watercolours.

Related works (see also Charles Bell pack):

Charles Bell at UCL Art Museum:

Side of the Face, 1830 (UCL Art Museum #9282)

Nervous System of the Head and Trunk, c.1830 (UCL Art Museum #9886)

Spinal Nerves, c.1830 (UCL Art Museum #9885)

Sunday in Scotland (UCL Art Museum) and Sunday in England (UCL Art Museum)

Anonymous, Portrait of Charles Bell (print with handcolouring), (UCL Art Museum).

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